CYPRUS: Do the banks need us more than we need them

05 August, 2018 | Posted By: Charlie Charalambous

It’s becoming harder to think of a good reason why we should keep our money in the bank or even have anything to do with them.

There are tribes in the Amazon and the Australian outback that get along just fine without having to visit their local branch or execute an online transaction. Surely there will come a time when banks won’t be necessary.  

Soon we will be able to use cloud technology to keep our savings in virtual space or have a cashier in the sky. Hence the popularity of cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Cyprus doesn’t seem to be particularly good at keeping traditional banks either with two systemic banks – Laiki and the Co-op - disappearing this decade.

Even the dodgy foreign banks have gone somewhere else.

In this moving landscape of liquidity-strapped financial institutions, there doesn’t appear to be a lot going for the ordinary bank customer. Cypriots are in a no-win situation.  

If you have money in the bank the interest rate on savings is at an all-time low, while if want to borrow money there isn’t enough to go around and more security checks than at the US-Mexico border.  

Those submerged in debt face their homes being repossessed unless they can afford a smart lawyer. There seems to be little benefit in being a loyal bank customer or even bothering to having an account, especially now the banks are determined to squeeze every last penny out of us.  

Financial institutions are finding it hard to make enough money to justify their payroll, so who should they turn to when the chips are down – their long-suffering customers.

People use a bank for convenience and a service – but these services now come with additional charges. If you want the bank to count your money -- they will charge you.

If you want to withdraw cash -- they will charge you. If you want to ask a question -- they will charge you.

In fact, if you want anything at all there will be a fee attached to it. Therefore, the relationship with our bank has changed to a pay-as-you-go scenario from a friendly support service tailored to our needs.  

Retail banking appears rather old-fashioned these days when stood up against the gleaming high-tech finance of the corporate world. Ordinary customers have become an embarrassment to the system – half of them can’t or won’t pay back their debts while the other half are too young to have an account or too old to engage in e-banking.  

Old people use old money because they want to look into the bank manager’s eyes when they require something to be done (it’s what our forefathers did).  

The only time the banks are ever full of customers is during a bank run or people trying to cash their pension cheque. After a painful bail-in to get a bailout, Cypriots and foreigners still carry the scars of the severe haircut days of 2013.  

Overnight people lost savings above a €100,000 as the casino bankers at Laiki swirled down the plug hole. Unsurprisingly, those trust issues remain front and centre.

A survey published this week indicated that we have less faith in our banks than we did during the dark days of monetary controls and rolled-down shutters.

With trustworthiness at its lowest ebb – party due to the demise of the archetypal friendly bank, the Co-op – Bank of Cyprus and Hellenic Bank have hit their customers with a combination of sucker punches in the form of charging customers who want to believe their local branch should exercise care in the community.

Our heartless banks will come back at us to argue that this is the sign of the times where most of the interaction is done online with no need to visit a local branch to withdraw cash or order a chequebook.

Okay, this is the 21st Century but there are people who can’t use computers in this way and would rather chat to a friendly face in a world that wants to isolate them.

A paperless, seamless future beckons where our smart devices will become the personal bank we always wanted but until that time customer service should be treasured for the extinct species that it is.

For now, we travel through a land where the friendly bank manager has been replaced by a screen interface and all human interaction is a costed transaction where the love has gone.

Working in a bank is not the aspired job it used to be because banks are no longer the facilitator of dreams but the terminator of them. If you want to know who killed Bambi, there’s a bank charge for that as well.